Poetry, suspense, and reading Maria Hummel

She stared at the screen until her eyes ached, willing an email to flicker into existence: would the prospective poetry publisher like her new manuscript? See, that’s an example of raising suspense in prose, but good poems do that too. As Stephen Dobyns writes in an excellent essay, “Writing the Reader’s Life,” only discovered by this belated reader last week:

“The energy in a work–meaning whatever keeps us reading–comes in part from (1) the balance between what we know and what we don’t know and (2) how well the writer has made us want to know. A failure in much writing, especially poetry, is that the writer has not created sufficient tension, has not done enough to make us want to know. A failure in much writing, especially poetry, is that the writer has not created sufficient tension, has not done enough to make us want to know. If the writer takes the reader’s interest for granted, then he or she will fail.” (in Poets Teaching Poets, ed. Orr and Voigt)

In case you were in suspense after my last blog post about procrastination, I did in fact have a great writing week last week. I drafted a new chapter about “Suspense” in lyric poetry, focusing on House and Fire, a first collection by Maria Hummel. I started tracking her work in May 2012, when I spotted the amazing ghazal “One Life” in Poetry. Ghazals aren’t really supposed to be narrative–or at least linear–but this one raises several kinds of suspense: why does she stop believing in heaven? what happened in the accident? what’s the matter with her son and will he be all right? There’s also the beautiful formal suspension of rhyme and refrain, and the drama of how she handles the ghazal’s other requirements (if you know the form, for instance, you’re always curious to see how a poet includes a signature in the final couplet). Maybe perversely, after reading “One Life” I became anxious about Hummel’s real son’s well-being, and followed hints about it through individual poems in various magazines and, finally, this May, through her book. Maybe this isn’t what Hummel wanted me to want to know, but I did. Somehow she generated quickly in me that weird, not-quite-justified level of identification that turns a mild-mannered professor into an embarrassed but desperate poem-stalker. As a mother whose son has had a scary hospitalization or two, maybe I was especially primed for it, but I also think Hummel is just really good. (All the sons involved, by the way, seem to be okay, and mine is nearly ecstatic that it’s finally June.)

As I hoped, drafting this chapter helped me plan for this Saturday at the West Chester Poetry Conference. I’ll be speaking about genre, plot, and time and reading a little from “The Receptionist” in the panel “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” (June 7th at 3:15). I’m looking forward to poetic conversation but I also feel a little strange about going. Last time I attended–in June 2012–my father had just died and I was in suspense about his military funeral, because his young widow, officially next of kin, wouldn’t tell us when and where it would be (shortly after the conference and nearby, as it turned out). I was also waiting on copies of The Receptionist and Other Tales: the long narrative poem at the heart of it was inspired in part by the bad behavior of certain administrators at my home institution, one of whom was still my dean, and while the book is truly fictional, I was quite worried about fallout. While at West Chester, I got the call that this toxic dean had been demoted–this is quite the punchline, so wait for it–TO MY DEPARTMENT. Where he still lingers. So even though the 2012 conference was full of wonderful events and meetings, including Natalie Gerber’s excellent seminar on free verse prosody, it still makes me sick to my stomach to remember it.

As for my opening tease about my current poetry ms, Radioland, this one largely about my father: don’t know yet. The publisher asked to see it exclusively in January and still has it, promising me a verdict by mid-June at the very latest. I felt relaxed about the process all spring. While I’d be honored to publish with this press, I feel strongly hopeful that someone will eventually want this book. It would just be nice to deliver it to the world sooner rather than later, I told myself. Now, though–probably because I finally have time to think–I’m getting seriously antsy. But, dear reader, both of us are just going to have to dangle a little longer.

 

In which I procrastinate with snacks, parties, and fake-writing

The peony heads slump over in their lushness. I can hear the baccalaureate speaker’s voice faintly behind the air conditioner’s hum, and I wonder again: in what sense does featuring another white Christian minister make this religious event “more inclusive”? Well, I’ll sit it out in my office but don my robes tomorrow for another long hot graduation ceremony on the lawn, then rush to the departmental luncheon to scarf down a little fruit and chicken salad before the students arrive with their dads sweating through cotton jackets and little old grandmas tottering around on the edge of heat exhaustion. I like the luncheon—praising students quite genuinely to their emotional parents, shaking damp hands, asking neutral questions that don’t imply a new BA should have firm post-grad plans yet, celebrating when they offer up good news about a job or grad school acceptance. It’s a happy kind of closure after a long hard year, especially since the mini-saunas of our dress clothes will have purged us of old grade disagreements.

I’m still in that delusional dilatory state in which I think I ought to clear the deck before I really write. This is delusional because there is ALWAYS another bit of paperwork to finish, emails to send, clean-up from the previous term or planning for the new one. Though some colleagues still linger over dwindling piles of student writing, I tend to get my grades in as fast as possible, read and summarize course evaluations, move books from the “on deck for class” spot to regular shelving, and proceed to other marginally OCD term-closure rituals. May always brings magazine rejections and acceptances, too, as faraway editors clear their own desks, and I get a little frisson of record-keeping joy as I document their decisions and list the lucky yeses on my curriculum vitae and Faculty Activities Report.

I do know this is a little crazy, even though as procrastination goes, clerical work is more productive than painting my toe nails a new color or watching funny cats on YouTube (not to cast aspersions on those venerable amusements, but I do feel pleasantly smug when that FAR comes due and I am ready to hit send). I do have to remind myself every year that it is procrastination, not some exercise of virtue. Writers write even when their desks are messy and that faculty development event they attended isn’t properly logged. My spouse is a good reminder of this. He writes even when he’s showering, running, folding laundry. This time of year—once heavy teaching work is on pause for three months—I need to seek a similarly single-minded focus instead of, say, mentally drafting memos or dreaming about my next snack.

I am showing early, hesitant signs of hunkering down. During April I drafted a crazy long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of the folk tale as prompts; the quester is a middle-aged woman taking a three-hour walk in the April woods, pondering a career change and worrying about whether she may be pregnant. I reread it last weekend, shaped it up a bit, sought the aforementioned spouse’s feedback, revised it again, and gave it the provisional title “Propagation.” It was really fun to draft, requiring lots of, you guessed it, long walks in April woods, and at least for now, I like the results. I just shipped it off to a friend who wants to trade critiques this summer. That’s work, right?—although I always start summer’s meal with dessert.

This project has been good preparation for a presentation I’m giving on “The Receptionist,” a very different long poem, two weeks from now at the West Chester Poetry Conference. The panel is “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” with the very accomplished and hip poets Dolores Hayden and Jehanne Dubrow (Saturday June 7th at 3:15, in case you’re around). We’re going to discuss problems of genre and composition then read from our various works. I find myself thinking particularly about how all narrative is time-management—deciding when to work through a scene in slow detail, and how to handle those sudden, disparate jumps of an hour, a day, a month of story-time. The form I chose for “The Receptionist” was highly symmetrical, involving thirty-three terza rima cantos of thirty lines each, and that made time-jumps harder to regulate and clarify. Grounding the story in an academic year, September to June, helped, as did liberal seasonal and holiday references.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to give that presentation yet, but at least I’m finally turning my mind into the right groove. I’m hoping to segue right from working up my talk into writing a narrative-themed chapter for my prose-book-in-progress, Taking Poetry Personally. I’ll lay some groundwork, at least, and do a little more research during a work-and-pleasure trip to France in the second half of June. More on that here before takeoff, I hope.

In the meantime, back to “work” on the conference by arranging meals with friends, including poet Rafael Campo, who is sage and inspiring in this recently published interview for Shenandoah. Oh, and there’s a reference letter I have to write, and this really fun collaboration with artist Carolyn Capps that’s been languishing (see a bit of it at the new issue of Levure littéraire), and I’m really behind on my literary-magazine reading after which, whoops, it will be time to race home and get dinner on before my son’s band concert, and of course tomorrow will be all ceremonies and parties, and who could squeeze in writing time then? And maybe Friday I should begin to update my poetry submissions—I haven’t sent work out for ages, and while submission has its own agonies, it’s not as hard as actually writing. But soon, very soon, I’ll definitely, seriously get cracking.

Giveaway plus

booksI don’t know why it’s so much fun to give presents to strangers, but I enjoy this annual Big Poetry Giveaway project so much. Thanks again to Kelli Russell Agodon for organizing it for National Poetry Month 2014. Twenty-seven people entered (that’s my lucky number) and I just selected a winner via an online random number generator. Congratulations to Michael Allyn Wells! There will be a bonus in addition to the two books promised. Ecotone editor Anna Lena Phillips just gave me a little pile of her beautiful and useful letterpress chapbook, “A Pocket Book of Forms,” so Michael, you’re getting one too. I don’t even remember saying anything helpful about this project in draft stage, but Anna Lena swears I did. Proof that little gifts do come back to you, multiplied.

This poetry week had ups and downs, but I’m ending it in the black. I started in pain from a wrenched back and shoulder and worried I wouldn’t be able to get through the mucky piles of labor ahead. Nightmares about trying and failing to keep my kids safe have been costing me sleep, too. I think it’s just mixed feelings about how fast they’re growing, but I slapped poor Chris awake at 6 a.m. today, thinking I was fending off bad magic directed at my daughter. I was also sad about the end of the Writers at Studio Eleven series and uncertain whether my spring term Poetic Forms workshop was clicking. In the last few days, though, people have been volunteering that they love the course, and more importantly, among the new poems they’re showing me are a few real dazzlers. I also received an email from a student who read at Studio Eleven a few weeks ago and now wants to start a slam poetry club on campus–hurrah! I also found myself participating in a teacherly energy-sharing circuit. Yesterday’s Skype visit to Stan Galloway‘s poetry course at Bridgewater College was really fun. I loved his students’ take-no-prisoners challenges: for instance, why there are so many ghosts in my poems when I describe myself as a skeptic? (Um…) Anna Lena gave a brilliant demonstration of literary editing to my class, using a triolet as an example, and then a beautiful reading later in the evening.

And then I received a note from Switchback, whose editors accepted my poem “Epistolary Art” recently. The poem’s now up AND it has been honored with the editor’s prize for the issue. I first drafted this piece while listening to a talk about Keats in New Zealand. The poem felt important to me–it’s about making connections over distance through letters and ultimately through poems, which is a central idea in my current ms Radioland. I had a particularly hard time getting it right, though, eventually subtracting a good-sized chunk of it, so it’s particularly satisfying to know this epistle reached someone.

So here’s to Michael, and to the month of May, and to poems in the pipeline–I even received an acceptance from Crazyhorse last week, a journal I’ve admired for ages. I’m going to give away the metaphorical farm–whatever that is–if subtractions keep adding up this way.

 

Elegy for a community reading series

Local honey

It is 5:31 in Lexington a Monday
after magnolia and before honeysuckle
the second week of Spring Term’s sugar drip
and I am driving the hospital road to Kroger
in my dogwood-dirty Hyundai with green dents
to pick up strawberries, lemonade, pre-sliced
cheese and wine with screw-tops because I
have finally learned to make hard things easier

By 6:03 I refrigerate the chardonnay, cheap
but not so sweet I won’t drink the last splash later
murmuring waste not, and I am chewing salad
with the kids, checking in about shin splints
and the Latin quiz while trying not to worry
did I remind the students and hell I forgot the signup
sheet because this will be the last open mic ever
at Studio Eleven and I could just savor
it for once in my hypoglycemic life
soon
I am at the gallery but sending Chris back
for Mattie’s jar of bee-stuff left on the sideboard
and surprise, Agnes Carbrey’s all over the walls
her dark-haired woman swimmers submerged
in and fragmented by rippled blue and feeling
as I will again the joy of summer weightlessness

When everyone sits I say something ridiculous
because I am underwater and cannot hear myself
Patrick eyes me through a long lens and Deborah
is plotting something, while behind the front-row
cadets dressed in spotless whites there’s Ted
cradling daisy-new pages and an old ration book

Finally I emerge dizzy into the first story
Sharon teaching in the prison where Mr. Vasquez
fell and the people meant to save him didn’t—
Sharon can’t revive him but gathers us anyway
in her cinderblock classroom, tables cleared
for a gurney and we witness its absence with her

in the rain outside redbuds carry candles
in the rain inside each swimmer listens for
the thump of the world, her own blood buzzing

4/29/14

cardLong day of teaching and conferencing here, but I just wanted to post a thank-you to everyone who made this three-year reading series such a success. Arthur C. Glasgow funded a reading series at Washington and Lee in 1962 and it still helps us pay honoraria and put out cookies. Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and the writing group SubTerra have also given the series significant support. Certain individuals have given us welcome help too, especially writer, photographer, filmmaker, and soon-to-be-retiring VMI professor Gordon Ball. Vicki Goodheart’s Studio Eleven Gallery has been an auspiciously beautiful space. Readers from Luisa Igloria to Kevin McFadden to my dear colleague Deborah Miranda, organizer of cards and gifts, have brought so much electricity to the space. Most of all, though, I’m grateful to collaborator Mattie Quesenberry Smith, because running this series was a downright crazy thing for both of us to do, and her particular kind of craziness is rare, lovely, and hard to come by. Oh, and apologies to my man Frank O’Hara, whose “The Day Lady Died” I keep abusing in poetic imitations–but whenever I want to write a goodbye that’s heartfelt yet not too sentimental, the voice in my ear is his.

 

Zombie spring term

Summoning enthusiasm for our super-intense four-week spring term after a long year and a too-short break always feels just about impossible. I watch my spouse bounce along with superheroic energy and think, Good lord, can I do this? The same skepticism is showing on some student faces, too, especially among seniors with honors thesis hangovers.

So for the first meeting of English 205: Poetic Forms yesterday I mostly just followed the script I’d left after a previous round. The prompt I’d used for introductions two years ago: Tell us your name, year, where you’re from. Then describe a really good class you’ve taken in the past, at any level, and tell us what made it great—some element or policy that made it all click.

The answers were astonishingly similar. Every single person cited a class in which the professor strategically ceded control, students took charge of learning, and the stakes of that learning were clear. A couple of them praised free-wheeling discussions led by Eduardo Velasquez, a colleague hired with me twenty years ago who suddenly resigned early this month (well, it was sudden to me, but I’m probably just oblivious). One student cited the small capstone seminar run by the aforementioned energetic spouse, Chris Gavaler, for which senior majors build a syllabus based on their own obsessions. Others mentioned the open conversations of their first-year writing courses, peer workshops, and computer labs in which students tested and implemented programs. Not one class sounded easy. What the students valued was real work that was really up to them.

Auspicious for a workshop, isn’t it? Inspired by their reflections, I asked them to think about poetic forms I didn’t put on the syllabus and offered to rearrange my plans based on their interests. What the heck. I’m looking forward to hearing their ideas this afternoon and seeing the poems they bring in (yes, the first writing assignment is due on the second day!). We’re ramping up quickly this week from litanies to counted and syllabic verse to haiku and renku to iambics—phew. Today we’re discussing Marianne Moore’s “The Fish,” so for fun, I’m attaching a poem that appeared in Subtropics last spring that duplicates Moore’s syllable and rhyme scheme: “Inside the bright.” I’ve been teaching “the Fish” forever so it’s not surprising it came to me when watching my kids ride waves in Kauai. I think my poem’s a lot simpler, though; I still don’t truly understand “The Fish,” even after twenty-something years of feeling attracted to its puzzles.

And since we’re counting backwards, here are a couple more student projects I’ve learned from. Remember the internship I ran with Max and Drew that resulted in a special Shenandoah portfolio of poems from New Zealand? Three of the poems we selected were just reprinted in Best New Zealand Poems 2013: Hinemoana Baker’s “Rope,” Cliff Fell’s “Chagall in Vitebsk,” and Anna Jackson’s “Sabina, and the Chain of Friendship.”

The latter publication occurred at the tail end of a set of New Zealand-based readings for my winter seminar on twenty-first century poetry and place. That class did a baby digital humanities project for which students had to pin place references from NZ poems on a world map: see the results here. The students reported pleasure and surprise just navigating the geography—most of them of course, have no idea what’s where in the Pacific, plus the sheer vastness of that ocean is generally a shocker to east-coast Americans. The project also confirmed my sense of the worldliness of NZ writers. While I asked them to focus on Aotearoa, plenty of pins speckle the Pacific islands, the Americas, Europe, even Antarctica. Lots of poetic teleportation going on…

Back now to staggering through the cruelest month, when dead Washington and Lee professors must somehow reanimate.

Lilacs, long poems, life transformations

april dutchman's breechesI’m at one of my academic year’s four hinges, less evenly-spaced than the solstices and equinoxes: the long winter term has ended, grades are in, and I’m gearing up for our May term, four intense weeks that conclude with graduation ceremonies. It’s a crazy time of year to attempt a poetry experiment: writing every day for a month through winter term’s crescendo, exams, spring break, and the beginning of a new workshop. Somehow, though, two weeks in, I am still keeping the faith. Perhaps the longer hours of daylight help make time. I know I’m inspired by the zombie season, everything dead struggling and wheezing back to life. From my home office window, I watch the mountain change colors, lawns green up, and flowers bloom in preordained succession. Today a pair of cardinals is dancing around the branches of our broken maple, still bare but tipped with pale small leaves like folded umbrellas. There’s a magnolia across the street whose white blossoms always remind me of crumpled paper; scraps are falling already, so the yard resembles an old-time writer’s den with sheets ripped from the typewriter, balled up, and discarded all over the floor. Some tulips are up, and dark clenched knobs suggest the lilac is fit to burst.

The long poem I’m working on in half-hour stints doesn’t have a name yet, but it began with a middleaged woman standing at the edge of the woods in early April and she’s now nearly halfway through her walk. For inspiration, an orange-bound copy of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale sits beside my laptop. He breaks such tales into thirty-one stages such as “MISFORTUNE OR LACK IS MADE KNOWN” and “THE HERO ACQUIRES THE USE OF A MAGICAL OBJECT.” Since one of the stages, “THE SEEKER AGREES TO OR DECIDES UPON COUNTERACTION,” is something Propp himself suggests is typically skipped, the whole thing makes an interesting set of prompts for a month with thirty days. The project requires me to take frequent walks in the woods, particularly on the back campus where wildflowers are in bloom (I believe that’s Dutchman’s Breeches in the picture). I’m trying to learn their names. “I think that one’s spring beauty, a.k.a. miner’s lettuce,” I told Chris this week. He dared me to taste it and I did nibble a leaf; he then refused to try it himself, pointing out, “Someone’s got to carry you home.” It didn’t come to that, but I did discover later that I had in fact eaten a bit of Virginia bluebell. It didn’t kill me, but none of my sources describe it as edible.

On the whole, though the past seven days were exceptionally busy and tiring, last week was the best I’ve had in a while. A reading at a high school reminded me that poetry does matter. Many people have written to me—thank you!—about the videopoem of “My Dead Father Remembers My Birthday,” a piece that appeared recently in the New Ohio Review and which has just been reprinted as Shenandoah’s poem of the week. I’m writing. And I’m basking like those young garter snakes I saw by the river in our change of fate: Chris was recently hired tenure-track as W&L’s fiction professor (he’s been adjuncting here for ages), so now I can stop feeling guilty about transplanting him to Virginia twenty years ago, and our department can enjoy full-time, committed talent in a direly important field (our major is thriving generally, but fiction workshops are more in demand than any other course). I still haven’t processed this news deeply. Maybe I’ll fully relax when the cones of lilac blossoms do.

On my to-do list for “break,” in addition to writing, course prep, administrative catch-up, poetry submissions, summer travel planning, and taking my daughter down to Davidson for a college tour: sign up for various book lotteries from Kellie Russell Agodon’s Big Poetry Giveaway list. For a chance at my Heterotopia plus a signed copy of Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon’s ]Open Interval[, post a comment here.

High school, the best poetry audience ever

One way to tell the story of how I came to read poetry desperately and constantly would be: early. I still know by heart a book of nursery rhymes I used to own, with Richard Scarry illustrations. A lot of us, though, had our first serious poetry crushes in, or at least during, high school. At fifteen, while I was struck dumb by Keats in the classroom, I was also buying David Bowie albums, reading the liner notes, and hunting down the books he mentioned there. Hence William Burroughs—who was NOT on the curriculum at the Academy of the Holy Angels—and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which was a life-changer. Then Sister Ignatius commanded that I enter a poetry contest at Bergen County Community College, so I copied over my verses and, to my shock because I never won anything, took first prize. The professor-judge told me I’d clearly read a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I’d never heard of (maybe he’s the love-child of Keats and Ginsberg?), so I went home and read him, too. University was where this all gathered speed—taking modernism courses, meeting intense young writers who were also cute boys—but I’m not sure I ever needed poems as urgently I did in high school. Those were such isolated, unhappy years. Give me bad office politics, babies who wake at 5 a.m., even tax forms. It’s all better than being fifteen.

So I am all the more impressed by Beth Konkoski at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Virginia. She’s the kind of teacher I needed but most of us never get. Yesterday, at her invitation, I drove nearly three hours, ran a workshop for 30 students, read to about 300 in a large auditorium, had lunch with members of her department, and drove three hours home again. She doesn’t run an event of this magnitude every year, but Beth is a poet who meets other writers, like me, at conferences, so she knows her way around po-biz. She is also dedicated and organized: Beth asked some weeks in advance for a few poems I planned to read, especially poems revising myths and fairy tales, and gave them to her students in advance with journal prompts. She is also experienced enough in managing teenagers to make it look like a magical power: who ever heard of 300 highschoolers sitting quietly and with the appearance of respectful attention for a 40 minute poetry reading by some middle-aged person? It also seems to me, from a quick visit, that her large, diverse public school must be unusually supportive of inspired teachers, because the logistics alone were staggering. So many permission slips…

My workshop involved litanies and list-poems, a similar scheme to the one I wrote up for The Exercise Book (which I revisited for ideas earlier this week and man, that really is a good collection). I wanted to frame the reading itself with poems by other writers, so I elicited a bunch of suggestions on Facebook. I then didn’t follow any of them except for Margo Solod’s general directive: “hit ‘em hard.” Which meant, I deduced, not corporal punishment but choosing the most powerful poems I could. I began with a terrific Tim Seibles piece and closed with Mary Oliver, because one of my first Washington and Lee students, Jeanne, said “Wild Geese” had empowered her to depart from the script and be who she needed to be. Of my own, I chose a poem about being a zombie, another about campus sexual assault, some about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, and elegies. The dead pet poems triggered noisy tears from a young woman in the back start—I hope you’ll forgive me, Cellist Girl. A newish poem, “Vasovagal Syncope,” made another young woman run up afterwards: “I have that! I never thought I’d hear a poem about it!”

The questions amazed me most. You know how during the question period after a reading, all the college students will freeze and all the community members shift around uncomfortably? I had thought of pulling a Craig Santos Perez—he tosses cans of Spam to the first audience members who speak up—but I don’t have the throwing arm to reach the back rows, so I just braced myself for nervous silence. Instead, I couldn’t keep up with their raised hands. Okay, there was the sloucher in the first row performing disaffected sarcasm, but almost all of them were writer questions. What do you think about rhyme in contemporary poetry? How do you know when a poem’s done? What’s the most important idea you try to get across to your poetry students? What do you do when you’re staring at a blank page and nothing’s happening? How do you manage self-doubt? The one-on-one conversation afterward was just as urgent. One guy who called himself a “music nerd” asked, “So are there poet’s poets, the way there are obscure, unknown musicians that all the other musicians admire for their skills?” And there was the fiction writer who asked about writing a story in which people are telling a story. “Well, that’s called frame narration,” I began, and he said, “Yeah, but how do you DO it? Is it like, dot dot dot? Is there a way to start in third-person omniscient and then move to first-person?” Man, that kid is in the trenches.

Are there any questions more high-stakes than those, more serious? I liked those students so much for sticking their hands right up in that potentially intimidating space and asking what they needed to know. And I like their teachers so much for making room for this conversation in an era of frantic standardized testing and STEM-field obsession. The music nerds and future scientists need poems, too, and Beth is making sure they have access to them. It’s beautiful.